Cable news and talk radio are making a killing demonizing undocumented immigrants. In terms of ratings, few issues resonate as reliably. Since the fiery period of 2006-2008 when Congress first seriously contemplated rational immigration reform under the leadership of senators John McCain, R-AZ, (yes, that John McCain) and the late Ted Kennedy, D-Ma, but then ran from the issue in the face of furious backlash, ample file footage exists in every news outlet’s video library of young Latinos jumping the border wall or wading across the Rio Grande.
The story is therefore easy and cheap to illustrate. The fact that it is a lazy stereotype of undocumented immigrants, which ignores the hefty percentage of European, Asian, Australian and African visitors who overstay their visa is irrelevant, too complicated and lacking emotional punch. Thus, the typical report consists of a TV anchor or radio talk host lamenting either how our nation is being drowned by the brown tsunami from south-of-the-border, how they are sucking the nation’s life blood or how one of the invading Latino hordes committed a crime, which is far more egregious than if a citizen committed the same crime, “because they had no right to be here!”
Further, no branding has proven more effective than the combination of two powerful pejoratives, illegal and alien.
Like the words ‘Jew’ or ‘slob’ or ‘slut’, the phrase ‘illegal alien’ has the elegance of being harsh, but defensible, if accurate. Although it can be used as a cutting reference, it can still be uttered in polite company without fear of raising many eyebrows, especially among those who feel similarly negative about the individual being described.
Recently, a campaign has been mounted by Latino activists and supporters to ban use of the “I” word (as in Illegal). Ironically, the campaign has found traction first in Arizona, the state now most vividly associated with anti-immigrant sentiment and the birthplace of SB1070. Back in 2008, before things got truly vitriolic in the Grand Canyon State, Supreme Court Chief Justice Ruth McGregor agreed to ban the terms “illegal” and “alien” in all hearings or trials in state courtrooms.
The decision came after the High Court was criticized for using the words “illegals” and “illegal aliens” in several opinions by Arizona’s Hispanic Bar Association, known locally as “Los Abogados,” which asked Chief Judge McGregor for the ban. Their reasoning is as obvious as the motive of those who resort to using the offensive language. The terms create a contemptible brand, which stokes anti-immigrant bias and in the process, “tarnishes the image of state courts as a place where disputes may be fairly resolved.”
Because the cause is righteous, the movement to ban the expression has recently been re-energized and may spread, perhaps first to Florida. There, Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, has introduced a bill to ban the phrase “illegal alien” from official state documents.
“I personally find the word ‘alien’ offensive when applied to individuals, especially to children,” she said recently. “An alien to me is someone from outer space.” While no penalty is attached for using the expression, the flamboyant Senator Wilson added, “we don’t say ‘alien,’ we say ‘immigrant.'”
Aside from its unstated but intended negative reaction, I have a lawyer’s reason for wanting media outlets like my own to ban or at least modify the phrase. Absent a finding by a judicial or administrative body, it assumes a legal conclusion, that a person has no right to be in the United States. Given that every person whose resident status is questioned has the presumed right to a hearing on the matter, with an appellate process following a negative result, isn’t the media’s use of the expression as lazy as assuming the guilt of a person accused of every other crime?
How is it that accused murderers, robbers and child molesters are called “alleged” perpetrators, but immigrants are not accorded the same courtesy of accuracy, indeed, the same presumption of innocence?“Illegal alien” is a cheap shot. The oft-used plural of the adjective “illegal” as in “illegals” isn’t even recognized as an English noun by Microsoft Word.
It is stigma piled on stigma, and the potential consequences to a person so described following a judicial finding can be devastating. Anyone who suggests that deportation isn’t punishment is being disingenuous. So, if you insist on using the ungrammatical slur, at least await a finding of illegality before branding usually hard-working, otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants snared by authorities.
“Alleged illegal alien” may not be much of improvement, but it’s a step in the direction of accuracy. A voluntary decision by my cable news and talk radio colleagues to drop the phrase entirely would be humane and more in keeping with our immigrant nation’s centuries old traditions.
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